Having done a lot of travelling, and eating of countless local dishes in lots of countries, the thing that often fascinates me is the diversity of taste, even when using the same basic ingredients and meats.
Take a simple example, the plysa or plysur – basically a local hotdog that President Clinton said he enjoyed while in Reykjavík, Iceland. I went to the same place to try them – it’s called Bæjarins Beztu, which is allegedly also Iceland’s best known restaurant, even though it is nothing more than a shed with a single weathered picnic bench outside.
It has been around for over 60 years, in exactly the same location though I suspect the bench is more recent than that. I was there one evening after work some years ago, but there were no long queues, the plysur cost less than €2 (RM8.50) and Clinton was right – it was really, really great. Very fatty too, I have to admit, but also stunningly tasty with a snappy crunch throughout the sausage.
Supermarkets in Reykjavík also serve hot plysur, which one can eat on little indoor tables usually facing the street windows and they are invariably pretty good too – what struck me was the fervid succulence of these uncomplicated lamb sausages, especially when drenched with onions and sauce.
You see, I used to make my own lamb sausages but my efforts turned out to be rather ordinary, somewhat rough sausages even if extra fat was minced in. They also exuded a lot of oil when cooked so extra breadcrumbs were also required to soak up the fat and maintain a sausage-like texture.
The taste was allegedly pretty good, according to the intrepid people who tried them – but privately I was always a little disappointed. And I also then understood why there are not many lamb sausages being sold apart from the occasional thin chipolata-size merguez – lamb and mutton meat just do not normally transform into good sausages.
Some real sheep
So being not a little curious, I looked into the plysur and found out that the main meat comes from Icelandic sheep. What is really interesting is that the Icelandic sheep has remained pretty much a pure breed since it was brought over by the Vikings around 874 AD. Several attempts at cross-breeding have failed miserably to the extent that it has now been banned in Iceland and all crossbreeds culled, so genetically the Icelandic sheep is now probably the oldest and purest domesticated sheep on the planet.
So when offered, I jumped at the chance to taste at a restaurant the same meat as someone living over a thousand years ago – and indeed the Icelandic lamb meat was refined, tender and scented with a mild grassy fragrance rather than the usual robust lamb aroma.
Even with plysur, though it is really a simple example, the meat used genuinely made a lot of difference even though it had been somewhat processed. And when my daughter went to Iceland recently and texted back a picture of her plysur, it brought back fond memories of the Icelandic sheep and sort of prompted me into looking at how the production and processing of meat have changed over the years before the food arrived at the shops.
As there are so many different meats, it would take too long to cover every animal – so for this article, I have picked chicken as the target subject. This is mostly because I used to raise chickens at home when I was young so the subject matter is a little personal and also because I had just chanced upon an interesting book called The Dorito Effect by Mark Schatzer – it’s a pretty worthwhile read if you ever get the chance.
Michael’s chickens at Sentral
When I was working in Kuala Lumpur a while ago, there was a small but perfectly adequate wet market near Sentral where I was staying. Some might say it’s a little smelly and pokey but honestly, it didn’t bother me much because much of the stuff there was fresh, inexpensive and the location was very convenient.
At this market, I got to know Michael the chicken seller quite well and whenever it was needed, he always picked out a nice kampung chicken for me. It was good but somehow not as good as I had remembered chicken from childhood days. However, it was miles better than the horribly bland insipid chicken from some supermarkets.
Billions of chickens
There are several reasons why most chickens in the shops today are now devoid of flavour, especially in Western countries – though I am sure this situation now applies to the majority of chickens sold everywhere else in the world.
Let’s start with some facts about chickens. For one, it is the most successful migratory bird in the world, despite its inability to fly any real distance. Humans have helped this bird to spread to every country in the world, with the exception of the Vatican City (which is too small to have any coop room for keeping the birds).
It is also not found in Antarctica due to a treaty which bans the import of any live fowl due to the risk of disease to the local penguins – but these two places are the only exceptions. If you add up every domesticated animal and include even all the sewer rats in the world, they would still number less than the global chicken population, for there are over 20 billion chickens hanging around at any time, or more than three birds for every man, woman and child on the planet.
In the USA alone, over 23 million chickens are slaughtered every day for consumption and globally, over 50 billion chickens are killed per annum for food (at the rate of around 1,585 chickens per second).
The speed of chickens
The fact that over 50 billion are killed each year from a normal daily population of around 20 billion birds gives you an idea of how fast chickens are now bred, fattened up and slaughtered. This is a remarkable statistic for a creature that originated from scratching around in the undergrowth of the Asian jungles – in one sense, it is a triumph of modern food technology and in another context, it is also a mirror into the horrific reality of industrial food production.
From the speed of the hatching to slaughtering time – between four to 14 weeks – it is clear that these birds are somewhat different from the chickens in the wild, which normally take up to six months to grow to an edible size. And that is the first hint why commercial chickens don’t really taste like the original chickens anymore.
The second hint is that, in real terms, the price of chickens have fallen every decade since the 1940s, especially in the developed world, even including the brief periods when bird flu caused the culling of millions of birds around the world, mainly in Asia. Before the 1950s, chicken was actually considered a luxury food – but now it is very often the cheapest meat on sale in any supermarket.
Humans have been experimenting with cross-breeding chickens ever since the original genus gallus was domesticated around 10,000 years ago in China. Humans were not only seeking the best combination breeds for meat, eggs, climates, terrains, disease control, available feeds, etc – but also for cockfighting which seemed to be a major pastime throughout history. DNA traces of the two main species, gallus gallus and gallus sonnerati, from this distant past are still common to all modern chickens, traced via archaeological findings from prehistoric times onwards.
But the main story about the loss of flavour, and coincidentally the promotion of chicken to become the single largest source of meat protein in the world, is actually rather recent history – and has its origins in the late 1940s, in Maryland, USA.